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The Average Hero Sir Edmund Hillary, 88

As a student, my mother was in the streets of London on the Queen's coronation day 55 years ago when the news broke across the top of the crowds that ...

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Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were honored by Queen Elizabeth after Everest.

As a student, my mother was in the streets of London on the Queen’s coronation day 55 years ago when the news broke across the top of the crowds that Britain had conquered Everest. She has always said it was unimaginably thrilling, and that neither she nor anyone could say which event was more so. A nation disheartened by years of war and postwar hardship exulted.

The summiteer Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand beekeeper who had joined the British expedition, instantly became the world’s best-known climber. He took his lauded achievement and put it to greater use, working for humanitarian and ecological causes for the Sherpa people in Nepal into his 80s.
Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were honored by Queen Elizabeth after Everest.

Tom Frost, a respected American climber, worked with Hillary in Nepal on the 1963 Himalayan Schoolhouse Expedition: “He was a real, down-to-earth, swell guy. He could spin a yarn better than anybody, and everybody loved having him around.”

One of the first acts of the young Queen Elizabeth II was to knight Hillary and the expedition’s leader, John Hunt. The other summiteer, the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, received the prestigious but lesser British Empire Medal.
Hunt and Hillary declined to say who had stepped atop the world’s tallest peak first, averring that the climbers had been a team. Hillary broke his silence only after Tenzing’s death, in 1986. Lesser-known is that Tenzing, in his coauthored 1955 book, Tiger of the Snows, disclosed that Hillary was a few steps ahead.
Tenzing posed on the summit, and Hillary snapped the famous photo of him.
Hillary was later quoted as saying, “As far as I knew, [Tenzing] had never taken a photograph before, and the summit of Everest was hardly the place to show him how.”
John Hunt had invited Hillary on the British expedition to Everest, which eventually swelled to encompass 400 people including all porters, after Hillary had accompanied reconnaissance expeditions to the mountain in 1951 and 1952. Previously, from 1920 to 1952, seven major attempts had failed to climb Everest, then considered one of the last great adventures on earth.
“We didn’t know if it was humanly possible to reach the top of Mount Everest,” Hillary was quoted as saying. “And even using oxygen as we were … we weren’t sure whether we wouldn’t drop dead if we did get to the top.”
Hillary’s achievement brought great pride to New Zealand, and his self-effacing attitude—he referred to himself as an “average bloke” of “modest abilities”—made him a Kiwi archetype. In 1985 he was named his country’s ambassador to India. He was the first living New Zealander to be featured on currency: the $5 bill.
Born in 1919, Edmund Percival Hillary grew up in Tuakau, a small town in the vicinity of New Zealand’s capital, Auckland. Edmund commuted two hours each way to the Auckland Grammar School, and was younger and smaller than most of his class. He was “inferior” at sport, perhaps one reason he was attracted to mountaineering. At 16, he climbed his first mountain, Mount Ruapehu, discovering that while not a natural athlete, he possessed great endurance.
“I was a shy boy with a deep sense of inferiority that I still have,” Hillary said. In 1953, Hillary was supposedly so reserved that he was unable to ask Louise Mary Rose to marry him, so his future mother-in-law asked for him.
Hillary went on to climb other peaks in the Himalaya, and led the New Zealand chapter of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, reaching the South Pole overland in 1958. He would later reach the North Pole, becoming the first person to reach Everest’s summit and both poles.
Hillary’s life’s work, however, was for the Nepalese people. A few years after the expedition, Hillary recalled a Sherpa from Khumjung telling him, “Our children lack education. They are not prepared for the future. What we need more than anything is a school in Khumjung.” In the 1960s he built schools, clinics and hospitals in that country, and he founded the nonprofit Himalayan Trust in 1961. He was also honorary president of the philanthropic American Himalayan Foundation.
In 2000 Hillary said, “Nothing in life can be more satisfying than being the first, but what I’m proudest of is my work in the Himalayas.”
His 13 books (some co-written) include The Ascent of Everest; Crossing of Antarctica; Nothing Venture, Nothing Win; From the Ocean to the Sky; and Ecology: The Changing Face of Earth.
Edmund Hillary’s own life was marked by profound loss. His wife and daughter, Louise Mary Rose and Belinda, 16, were killed in a plane crash in 1975. In 1979 his friend and fellow mountaineer Peter Mulgrew took Hillary’s place as commentator on an Antarctic sightseeing flight, which then crashed. Ten years later Hillary married Peter’s widow, June Mulgrew.
Edmund’s son, Peter, born in 1954, is a mountaineer and a survivor of the famous K2 tragedy of 1995. Peter climbed Everest in 1990, and again, with Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing, on the 50th anniversary of his father’s landmark ascent. Hillary also has another daughter, Sarah, born in 1955, and six grandchildren.
The respected Hillary became an outspoken critic of today’s crowded Everest. After the death of the British climber David Sharp in 2006, he was quoted as saying, “I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying. It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems … just to lift your hat, say good morning and pass on by.”
His friend Nick Clinch of the American Himalayan Foundation muses, “The mountaineering community was very lucky that the three most famous members of the 1953 Everest expedition, all different, were wonderful people. Hillary, Tenzing and Hunt used their unexpected and really unwanted fame to help others.”
Hillary died January 11 in New Zealand.